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What Does It Mean To Embrace the World?

Featuring Interviews with Rabbi David Edelman and Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi
by Carter Phipps

section introduction

Technically defined, the word embrace means "to take in or include as a part, item, or element of a more inclusive whole." In this section we look at two traditions whose teachings answer the question, What does it mean to be in the world but not of it? by showing us how to "take in and include" the world in a positive, holistic, and "more inclusive" view of the spiritual life. Their passionate, life-affirming, and world-affirming vision—given birth to, ironically enough, in the midst of the barren desert landscapes of the Middle East—has produced what are perhaps the most world-embracing religions in history: Islam and Judaism. Had they arisen in another part of the world, these great theistic traditions might have been given credit for bringing an unprecedented richness and fullness to the "householder" or "lay" life. But not within their own culture. For within the God-centered life of Islam and the world-sanctifying spirituality of Judaism, there was and is simply no alternative path. No major monastic tradition has arisen within their ranks, and any renunciate voices that have emerged over their long history have inevitably been overwhelmed by a world-positive view of life that, many say, must always be the final resting point of any religion which believes that a benevolent God created this world. While they differ widely in form and content, and while they have each undergone tremendous change and transformation in their exposure over time to diverse cultures and circumstances, both Judaism and Islam, including Islam's mystical branch Sufism, have retained an unwavering conviction in the possibility and promise of living a fully spiritual life in this world.


What initially attracted us to the Jewish teachings for this issue of What Is Enlightenment? was their firm conviction that every aspect of our lives in the world can become truly sanctified by the fullness of a divine presence. Indeed, for over five millennia the Jewish faith has endured and prospered around the core institutions of family and community—institutions that have been infused at every level, to a degree perhaps unmatched by any other tradition, with an observance of the sacred and a devotion to the one God who created this world and said, according to the Torah, "Behold, it is good." Through its ceremonies, prayers, and mitzvot [commandments], Judaism is, as one rabbi describes it, "a way of life that endeavors to transform virtually every human action into a means of communion with God." Each daily activity—from business and work to study and worship, from leisure and recreation to diet and health, from child-rearing to sexual relations—is an opportunity to elevate the mundane, and to renew our connection with the divine spark of creation. And while from the outside the sheer comprehensiveness of the Jewish teachings on how to live rightly in the world may seem an imposition on the personal freedom so valued in our postmodern Western society, its practitioners beg to differ. In his book The Essence of Judaism, Jewish scholar Leo Baeck writes about "the joy in fulfilling a commandment" and says that the commandments of Judaism bind us to God. "With ever fresh symbols they seek to keep man above all that is low and common, to indicate to him the divine will, and to awaken in him that earnest andyet joyful consciousness that he always stands before God. These statutes do not seek to lead man away from his own environment; they leave him to his work and his home where they connect him with God. They demand the inner presence of the soul during the action of each hour. Each morning, noon, and evening, each beginning and each ending has its prayers and worship. The atmosphere of the house of God, the halo of religious devotion, is spread over the whole of existence; each day has its lesson and consecration."

Although it is true that in the Jewish scriptures and their commentaries one might occasionally find a warning about the temptations and attachments of worldly life, such protestations are for the most part drowned out by the chorus of devout voices expressing the joy and beauty of a life lived within the consecrated bosom of family and community and obedient to the sacred words of the Torah. Indeed, to read the words of the great Jewish scholars and rabbis is to be enveloped in and embraced by a worldview that seems so overflowing with richness and wholeness and so inherently positive and affirming, that one can't help but feel the powerful attraction of a life in which every part has its place and purpose in a transcendent order. To embrace the world in Judaism is to be embraced, in turn, by God.

Yet despite its deep reverence for God's creation in all its forms, Judaism has always been a religion poised delicately between two ways of understanding this world. On the one hand is its doubtless conviction in the inherent beauty, glory, and perfection of what the Torah calls the "wondrous works of the Lord." And on the other is its acute sensitivity to the often agonizing imperfections of this worlds—the harsh inequalities, pervasive injustices,and widespread suffering within his creation that would seem to indicate a very incomplete undertaking. Our task, therefore, is not to be free of this world, nor even just to be free in this world, but to literally rectify the world—to bring the perfection of God into our lives, to bring heaven to earth, and in so doing, as Jewish scholar David Ariel writes, to help God "finish the work of creation." As Abraham Heschel, one of this century's most eloquent witnesses of the Jewish faith, says, "The meaning of man's life lies in his perfecting the universe. He has to distinguish, gather and redeem the sparks of holiness scattered throughout the darkness of the world. This service is the motive of all precepts and good deeds. Man holds the keys that can unlock the chains fettering the redeemer."

One of the most revealing passages in the Torah is the account in Genesis of Jacob's dream, in which he beholds a ladder that reaches from earth to heaven with a host of angels ascending and descending its steps. The Lord, standing nearby, makes a series of promises to Jacob, who upon waking says, in a moment of direct revelation, "The Lord is present in this place, and I did not know it!" And he continues, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the abode of God." Exploring Judaism's world-embracing path, one cannot help but taste, at least briefly, Jacob's powerful recognition that this world is truly none other than the abode of God.


The greatest things sometimes have the humblest beginnings. And perhaps no where is this more true than where the word "Sufi" is concerned. It is a term that in the Persian, Arabic, and Turkish languages denotes the highest mystics of the Islamic faith, and yet its derivation is the Arabic word suf, meaning simply "wool." In the early days of Islam, when the Sufi mystics had not yet blossomed into the devotional and ecstatic, God-intoxicated dervishes they would become, extreme asceticism was the order of the day and the fakirs, or holy men, of the time imitated the Christian monks, wearing only simple woolen robes as a sign of their renunciation of the world. Thus was born the term by which they would become known: Sufi. And while it is said that the early renunciates of Islam rivaled their Christian brothers in their ascetic piety, self-denial, and disgust for the things of the world, it wasn't long before the zeal for asceticism waned—overcome in the first centuries of Islam by the rise of the mystical love and devotion to God that Sufism is now so well known for, and the deep respect for work and family life that has always been a hallmark of the Islamic faith. Muhammad did, after all, condemn celibacy, strongly encourage marriage, and have four wives himself. But unlike the Jewish path, whose embrace of community and family life has remained steadfast since its inception, the Sufis' world-positive view of the spiritual life, we discovered, has always contained within it a strain of temperance, of hesitancy, and wariness, a recognition of the world's potential dangers and snares. And it maintains an unwavering conviction that God, or Allah, must always be set above the concerns of the world. As one Sufi author claims, "Do not blame the world, blame yourself, if you do not use it in the right way. The world is God's property. If property falls into the hands of a dishonest man, it will be the cause of his downfall. If the property falls into the hands of a trustworthy man, it will become a means of honor and success. . . . Everything depends on how you use it. . . . Obedience to God makes the world good." So although early exposure to Christianity influenced Sufism a great deal, as did its later exposure to Buddhism in the cities of Persia, neither monastic tradition could restrain the passionate holy men of Islam, who were determined to find a path to God in the world and their own way to be "not of it."

Thriving as it does in a great number of diverse cultures, Sufism naturally varies quite widely among its many strands, and some still contain the echoes of its early flirtation with a renunciate world view. But by the eighth century, it had fully established itself as the "marketplace" spiritual path we now know, and, for the most part, would remain that way. So while Sufi mystics may warn of the difficulties of family life, the truth is that almost all have been married (some to several wives). While they may speak ofthe dangers of relations with worldly people, very few have practiced the radical solitude of hermits or monks. And while they may fast or deny themselves worldly pleasures, it is usually temporary, balanced by times of feasting, celebration, and enjoyment. Indeed, it has been said that the early Sufis possessed three outstanding qualities—a love of food, sweets, and women. Originally intended as a criticism, it is also areminder that in addition to the lightness of being and depth of devotion so famous in the Sufi character, there is also an endearing humanity.

Of course, when it does come to criticizing the attachments of a worldly life, the Sufis take no prisoners. Their fierce declarations rival those of even the most austere ascetics. "The world is cunning like an old witch and her tricks are limitless," the Sultan Valad writes. "She has trapped us in her nets. Very few ever escape." But for all their world-negative sentiments, takenas a whole the passion of the Sufis does not inspire a yearning to renounce the world so much as itbetrays a deep love of Allah and his creation and a desire that our lives in the world be truly worthy of the perfection and beauty that is his gift to us. In fact, the more we looked into it, the more it seemed that Sufism represented possibly the most "in the world but not of it" spiritual view we had encountered, making us more than a little curious to find out what this great mystical tradition would have to say about what it means to fully embrace life in the world without losing one's own balance in the swoon.

Rabbi David Edelman has been the leader of the Orthodox Jewish community in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut for over fifty years. Born in 1925 to a Polish shoemaker in Baltimore, Maryland, and raised in a traditional orthodox household, Edelman moved to Brooklyn, New York, while still in his teens to enter a yeshivah [Jewish religious school] and study for the rabbinate. The young Edelman was profoundly inspired by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whom he first met in 1941, just daysafter the revered master arrived in America. Schneerson, considered to be a tzaddik, one of Judaism's rare mystical prophets, was the seventh leader in the dynastic lineage of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, a sect of Hassidism founded some 200 years ago. Although when he first arrived in Brooklyn, Schneerson was little known beyond his small circle of followers in Eastern Europe, he went on to become one of this century's best-loved Jewish leaders, with thousands of devoted disciples, and tens of thousands who would come from all countries and faiths to see him in person and receive his blessing. Following the footsteps of this great master and of the Baal Shem Tov, the mystic who fathered the entire Hassidic movement in the 1700s, Rabbi Edelman emphasizes serving God by serving the world. For followers of the Lubavitch tradition, like Edelman, finding the sign of God even in the most mundane events and helping one's fellow man are the essence and fulfillment of the spiritual life. Founder and dean of the Yeshivah Academy and spiritual director for over350 congregants, Edelman is also the father of eight children, and grandfather to more than sixty grandchildren. Joining him in thisinterview was his son Rabbi Yisroel Edelman, of the Keter Israel Synagogue in Massachusetts.

Sheikh Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi was born in Turkey in 1926. Attending universities in Istanbul, Paris,and California, he studied various subjects, such as art, architecture, and Indian culture, eventually going on to receive a fine arts degreein London. In 1949, he moved to Casablanca, where he became a successful businessman and an influential political power-broker, all the while maintaining a strong interest in art and painting. A few years later, political circumstances forced him to leave Morocco for America, and he began to pursue his interest in art full-time, becoming head ofa university art department andestablishing an international reputation for his own work. He met his wife, also a well-known artist, during this period. In 1968 a friend introduced him to Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak of the Halveti-Jerrahi order of Sufis, a popular teacher with a large following both in Turkey and the United States. This meeting completely changed his life, and he became a devoted student of Sheikh Muzaffer, eventually abandoning his art career entirely to pursue the spiritual life. Today Sheikh Tosun Bayrak is the head of the Halveti-Jerrahi Sufi order in America.We visited their mosque outside New York City last May and posed our questions to Sheikh Tosunon the evening of the weekly Sufi dhikr, a traditional Sufi ceremony attended by the Sheikh's Eastern and Western dervishes as well as by local supporters.

Quotations from: Arthur Hertzberg, ed., Judaism, George Braziller, New York, 1962, p. 73; Leo Baeck, The Essence of Judaism, Schocken Books, New York, 1976, p. 226; David S. Ariel, Ph.D., Spiritual Judaism: Restoring Heart and Soul to Jewish Life, Hyperion, New York, 1998, p. 9; The Torah, Genesis 28.13, The Jewish Publication Society of America, Philadelphia, 1962, p. 50; Andrew Harvey and Eryk Hanut, Perfume of the Desert, "The Old Witch" by Sultan Valad, Quest Books, Wheaton, IL, 1999, p. 17; Anonymous, quoted by Tor Andrae, In the Garden of Myrtles, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1987, pp. 69-70.


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This article is from
Our "In the World But Not Of It" Issue